The Bugly Truth About Flea Infestations

Written by April Kahn | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

The Health Risks of Fleas and Flea Infestations

Fleas are tiny, reddish-brown insects. They are bloodsucking insects that normally feed on animals, but they can also feed on humans. Fleas are wingless, but have flat bodies and strong legs, which enable them to jump incredible distances. Fleas can jump up to 80 times their own height, according to the Entomological Society of America. This is the equivalent of a human jumping 1.5 football fields into the air. (Ent Soc) Fleas travel from host to host by jumping from one person or animal to another.

Their armored bodies make fleas almost impossible to crush. This is why an infestation can thrive in your carpet, even in a high-traffic area. If you have a flea infestation in your home, you may notice your animals scratching more than usual or you might see fleas hopping onto your carpet or furniture. Fleas can easily hide in your carpet, so you may not be aware of their presence until a large infestation has occurred.

Causes of a Flea Infestation

Fleas can hop onto your pet’s fur from another pet or from infested dirt or grass outside. Once they find a host, fleas typically stay on or near this host.

Fleas usually live on an animal’s underbelly, so they can be easily transferred to your carpet or furnishings when your pet lies down. Fleas live and breed in warm, moist places, so infestations are usually worse in the summertime.

Signs of a Flea Infestation

The signs of a flea infestation include:

  • seeing fleas hop onto your drapery, carpet, or furniture
  • seeing several dot-like insects on your pet’s fur
  • seeing your pets scratch, lick, or bite their fur excessively

Your pets may develop scabs or lose their fur in the infested area. They may also develop pale gums from blood loss (anemia). Animals infested with fleas may also be susceptible to tapeworms because some species of tapeworm use fleas as their hosts.

How Do I Know if I’ve Been Bitten?

If you’ve been bitten by a flea, your body will release the chemical histamine in reaction to the saliva introduced by the flea. The histamine causes an itchy bump to form at the location of the bite. If you scratch this bump, the itching can worsen and the bump may get bigger.

Unlike mosquito bites, fleabites on humans are usually located on the lower legs and feet and are characterized by red spots surrounded by red halos. However, like mosquitoes, fleas can spread serious illnesses to human hosts, including cat scratch fever and typhus.

Additional, rare symptoms of a fleabite may include:

  • hives
  • a rash
  • swelling around the bite

Symptoms begin immediately after you are bitten. No tests are necessary to confirm a fleabite, since the signs are apparent during self-examination. However, you may need to take your pet to a veterinarian to be checked and treated for the flea infestation.

Allergic Reaction to a Fleabite

Some people have an allergic reaction to fleabites. If you are allergic, your immune system may overreact to the insect bite and release a large amount of histamine. This could cause a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • intense itching
  • a rash or hives on various parts of your body
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling of your face, hands, mouth, and lips

Anaphylaxis can be life threatening if it isn’t treated immediately. You may need to take Benadryl or use an epinephrine injection if you are having trouble breathing.

Getting Rid of a Flea Infestation

To eliminate a flea infestation, you must treat yourself, your pets, and your home.

Treating Your Home

Thoroughly clean your carpet using a vacuum with a disposable bag. After vacuuming, take the vacuum outside and remove the bag. Do not dispose of the bag inside your house. Vacuum your furniture using a handheld vacuum or an attachment from an upright vacuum.

Grocery stores carry flea-killing sprays and powders that can be used to eliminate infestations in your home. If you use these products, your pets may need to leave the house for a specified period of time.

Treating Fleabites

To treat fleabites on your body, you can use over-the-counter anti-itch creams, lotions, or ointments.

Treat a flea infestation on your pets by cleaning their fur with anti-flea shampoo and anti-flea powder. Once your pets are clean, fit them with anti-flea collars or use topical liquid medication, such as Frontline. The collar and medication can treat the infestation on your pets and keep it from recurring.

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